Category Archives: Herbal Education

The History of Burdock

This article was originally published in Natural Herbal Living Magazine.  If you haven’t taken the time to check out that publication, you should.  Each issue is dedicated to the study of one plant and written by practicing herbal clinicians.  It is a great resource.  

History of Burdock

The first recorded name of Arctium lappa is thought to be Arcion, as used by the Greeks, which Dioscorides proposed was called personacea or lappa by the Romans. In the past some questioned whether Dioscorides was referring to greater burdock in this entry, but historians have come to believe that the other entry Arction is that of lesser burdock or A. minus.

Burdock’s alternate name shows up frequently enough as some sort of variation of personacea, that it is convincing evidence. For example, in the 1st century C.E., the Roman physician Celsus called the herb Personina planta and recommended that the root of the plant be smashed and taken in wine and applied to venomous bites. Another clue to the puzzle was that 17th century apothecarist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper writes of greater burdock and shares a similar recommendation saying, “A dram of the Roots taken with Pine Kernels, helpeth them that spit foul, •••tery, and bloudy Flegm.”[1]

Clate was the name that historians believe Anglo Saxons used specifically refer to A. lappa. (Again they used A. minus as well, possibly referring to that as clive, or clife, although those names have also been associated with Galium aparine.)

There were many Gaelic names for the plant. Leadan liosda meaning, “a head of stiff hair,” being perhaps the most “official.” Carmichael mentions meac-an-dogh and searcan. “Mar cheosan air sgiathan fior-eun,” is an old Irish adage by Ossian meaning, “Like bur clinging to the eagle’s wing.”[2]

John Uri Lloyd cites examples of many early US publications which mention the herb by its Spanish name of bardana.[3] Some older herbals refer to the herb as Bardana major.[4] Scudder refers  to burdock as Lappa officinalis.

Burdock in Legend and Lore

Burdock being a somewhat ungainly plant with little to speak of in the department of blooms and fragrance, hasn’t gained a lot of fame in lore or folk traditions. It is mentioned in an ancient land-remedy ritual said to improve the crops from the field and remove any sorcery cast upon the land.

“At night, before daybreak, take four sods from four sides of the land, and note how they previously stood. Then take oil and honey and barm, and milk of all cattle on the land, and part of every kind of tree growing on the land, except hard trees, and part of every known herb except burdock alone; and put holy water thereon, and then sprinkle [holy water] thrice on the bottom of the sods, and then say these words: ‘Crescite, et multiplicamini, et replete terram.’” (Grow, and multiply, and replenish, the earth.)[5]

Anglo Saxon historians believe that perhaps that burdock had an association with evil spirits and was consequently excluded from the ritual.[6]

The only other traditional use that has been shared seems to be that during a harvest festival in eastern Berwickshire: Young people would pelt everyone with bundles of burrs until they were covered in “sediments of white hairs, which gave the appearance of having been wrapt in a woolen blanket.”[7]

Burdock for Fevers

The 12th Century medical compendium, The Trotula, mentions burdock root as an ingredient in a preparation called populeon, an unguent useful “against the heat of an acute fever,” and for provoking sweating.[8]  Gabrielle Hatfield also mentions the herb as being a diaphoretic used by Scottish women in the eighteenth century.[9]

This is a story I found when studying the popular use of healing herbs in the Mormon culture that is probably the most detailed description I have ever found of this particular historical use of burdock:

When she would have a fever, my mother used to take burdock leaves and put them around her feet to reduce the fever. She would peel back the outer layer over some of the veins. Every here and there, there would be a hard vein, something like the stem of the leaf. Mother was gentle. She didn’t want the leaves to hurt my sister. But she would take the green leaves, and after peeling them back, would wrap them around her feet, and tie them with a string, up toward the ankle, like a little moccasin.[10]

While this is not necessarily in keeping with the traditional western application of the herb, these uses are very much in keeping with the TCM uses in formulas meant to expel the poisons of flus and colds.

 Unique Uses of the Root

The historical use of burdock root is quite different from how we think of it today. For example, 1st century Greek physician Dioscorides recommended it for consumption and coughs, saying:

The root is large, white within, but black on the outside. One teaspoon of a decoction (taken as a drink with pine kernels) helps spitters of blood and corrupt matter.[11]

As mentioned above, this recommendation was repeated by Culpeper centuries later; consequently, it has shown up frequently in British folk remedies for colds. In the US, in the 19th century, Dr. John Milton Scudder agreed, saying “it is also a remedy of corrective power in bronchial irritation, and in coughs it exerts a checking influence.” Reference?

 The Anglo Saxons included clate as one of the many ingredients in “the green salve” of the Lacnunga, known for its healing properties. It was also said that clate was useful “against a sudden sickness,” boiled in ale with wenwort, bishopwort, fennel, and radish.

Culpeper also wrote that “the Root beaten with a little Salt and laid on the place, suddenly easeth the pain thereof, and helpeth those that are bit with a mad-Dog.” K’Eogh repeated this advice in the early Irish herbal Botanologia Universalis,[12] which was said to be his account of the herbs he encountered being used in Ireland at the time the book was written.

What is intriguing about this statement that herbs that were said to address rabies often did so because of their anti-spasmodic properties. Skullcap being the classic example. So, I went digging for other indications that the herb had some sort of action in the nervous system. British ethnobotanist Gabrielle Hatfield shares that the root was used in the Isle of Man for “allaying nervousness.”[13]

The Anglo Saxons were quite specific about how it was to be harvested and prepared, as is illustrated by their cure for hemorrhoids:

If the fig [hemorrhoids] become established on a man’s backside, then take the roots of Clate…three or four and smoke them in hot embers and then pull one out from the hearth and pound it and make a sort of little cake and lay on the backside as hot as it can be borne; when the cake cools then make more and lay on and let him be quiet for a day or two. When you do this (it is an approved remedy) let no one dig up the roots with iron, and do not wash with water, but wipe them clean with a cloth, and put a very thin cloth between the backside and the cake’… Lacnunga 44[14]

There is also an Anglo Saxon remedy against “a pock of the eye” (assumed to be a sty) which recommends boiling the root with ale and drinking this decoction.

By the early 19th century, British medical botanists, Barton and Castle, wrote that use of A. lappa had gone out of style in that country, but offered a very thorough history of its use, including an interesting story of how King Henry III of France was cured of lues venerea (syphilis) by root decoctions given to him by a healer named Petrus Pena.[15]

It is unclear if burdock’s use was actually in decline amongst the common folk. In the 1923 translation of Rosa Anglica, the introduction states that a decoction of burdock root and bogbean was still used in common use as a blood purifier.[16] It has also been reported that drinking the root decoction was effective against baldness.

At some point, physicians started interchanging the part of the plant they recommended or using both the seeds and the root in a preparation. In 1833, Wooster Beach recommended the root or seed of the herb made into a decoction for “ulcers, rheumatism and in all disease of the skin.” He also used the roots in a “medical beer” beverage aimed at purifying the blood, which is a use that held on for a long time in Southern folk medicine.[17] Homeopathic physician Edwin Hale suggested that the official preparation was a tincture of the root and seeds.[18]

 The Neglected Uses of Burdock Leaves

The leaves are one part of the plant that herbal practitioners really have all but forgotten about, which is odd, given their long history of use. Dioscorides only mentioned that the leaves of the plant could be applied to old ulcers to heal them, which is the use repeated most frequently in later literature.[19] But, Culpeper wrote of that and many other uses.The following use as a poultice for burns still turns up in modern folk medicine.:

The Leavs bruised with the White of an Egg and applied to any place burnt with Fire, taketh out the Fire, gives sudden ease, and heals it up afterwards.[20]

Culpeper also recommended the leaves as a diuretic, which isn’t really in keeping with the modern thought that inulin from the roots is responsible for that action.

The Juyce of the Leavs taken with Honey provoketh Urin, and remedieth the pain of the Bladder.[21]

At some point around the beginning of the 19th century, the use of the leaves seemed to be phased out in “professional” practice, but it continued in the common folks’ self-care practices.

 In Maine, at the turn of the 20th century, the leaves were used for relieving fevers and headache.[22] The Mormons also used poultices made of burdock leaves for rheumatism and arthritis for generations after settling in Utah.[23]

An interesting folk use of the herb in Ireland and Britain was to make a poultice of the bruised leaves and apply them to the soles of the feet to treat hysteria, convulsions, and epileptic seizures.[24]

 Burdock Seed Posset

The idea that decoctions of the seeds are useful for removing stones goes back a long way, also Hildegard wrote of making a wine decoction of burdock root to “wear down stones”. [25] This use has been recommended by many practitioners over the years.

My favorite recommendation comes from an Irish herbal: “The seed is celebrated for breaking the stone in a Poſſet drink.”[26]  This intrigued me, but unfortunately there are no directions for preparing a posset in the herbal as they were so common in the day.

The name posset is now incorrectly assigned to a pudding that resembles what was once called syllabub. In the past, though, it was actually a fairly potent alcoholic drink. Making a posset involved pouring a mixture of curdled cream over a sweetened mixture of sack (sherry) and ale:

Put a pint of good [by “good,” they likely mean milk that has already thickened a bit after sitting out as whole non-homogenized milk does] Milk to boil; as soon as it doth so, take it from the fire, to let the great heat of it cool a little; for doing so, the curd will be the tenderer, and the whole of a more uniform consistence. When it is prettily cooled, pour it into your pot, wherein is about two spoonfuls of Sack, and about four of Ale, with sufficient Sugar dissolved in them. So let it stand a while near the fire, till you eat it.[27]

Image of an English posset cup  from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Fancy posset cups had a spout for drinking the alcohol from the bottom. Given that older recipes recommend wine decoctions of the seed, it seems likely that the sherry in a recipe like the one above may have been a decoction. But as more complex posset recipes recommended adding spices to the milk, it is possible the seeds were simply ground finely and added to the drink.

[1] Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian : OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London. England: Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange., 1652.

[2] Cameron, John. Gaelic Names of Plants, Scottish, Irish and Manx. New Revised. Glasgow, Scotland: John Mackay “Celtic Monthly” Office, 1900.

[3] Lloyd, John Uri. Origin and History of All the Pharmacopeial Vegetable Drugs, Chemicals and Preparations with Bibliography. Vol. 1. Cincinnati, OH: Caxton Press, 1921.

[4] Threlkeld, Caleb, and Thomas Molyneux. Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum. Dublin, Ireland: S. Powell, 1726.

[5] Grendon, Felix. “The Anglo-Saxon Charms.” The Journal of American Folklore 22, no. 84 (1909): 105–237.

[6] Cameron, M. L. “Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic.” Anglo-Saxon England 17 (1988): 191–215.

[7] Johnston, George. The Natural History of the Eastern Borders. Vol. I  The Botany. Vol. 1. London, England: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1853.

[8] Green, Monica, trans. Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

[9] Hatfield, Gabrielle. “Domestic Medicine in Eighteenth Century Scotland.” Ph.D., University of Edinburgh, 1980.

[10] Noall, Claire. “Superstitions, Customs, and Prescriptions of Mormon Midwives.” California Folklore Quarterly 3, no. 2 (April 1944): 102-114.

[11] Dioscorides. De Materia Medica. - Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation. Translated by Osbaldeston, T. Johannesburg: IBIDIS Press, 60AD.

[12] K’Eogh, John. Botanalogia Universalis Hibernica: Cork, Ireland: George Harrison, 1735. pp. 20.

[13] Hatfield, Gabrielle. Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

[14] Storm, Gerhard. Anglo-Saxon Magic. Gravenhage, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1948. pp. 77.

[15] Barton, Benjamin, and Castle, Thomas. The British Flora Medica, Or, a History of the Medicinal Plants of Great Britain: Illustrated by a Coloured Figure of Each Plant. Vol. 1. London, England: E. Cox, 1837.

[16] Wulff, Winifred. Rosa Anglica Sev Rosa Medicinæ Johannis Anglici: An Early Modern Irish Translation of a Section of the Mediaeval Medical Text-Book of John of Gaddesden. London, England: Simpkin Marshall LTD., 1923.

[17] Wooster. The American Practice of Medicine. Vol. III. 3 vols. New York, NY: Reformed Medical School Society, 1833.

[18] Hale, Edwin Moses, and Whitman, F.S. The Characteristics of the New Remedies. 3rd ed. Detroit, Michigan: Lodges Homeopathic Pharmacy, 1874.

[19] Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian : OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London. England: Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange., 1652.

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Morrell, Jennie MH. “Some Maine Plants and Their Uses ‘Wise and Otherwise.’” Rhodora 3, no. 29 (1901): 129–132.

[23] Fife, Austin E. “Pioneer Mormon Remedies.” Western Folklore 16, no. 3 (July 1957): 153-162.

[24] Allen, David Elliston, and Gabrielle Hatfield. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2004.

[25] Bingen, Hildegard Von. Hildegard’s Healing Plants: From Her Medieval Classic Physica. Translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

[26] Threlkeld, Caleb, and Thomas Molyneux. 1726.

[27] Digby, Kenelm. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. Edited by Anne Macdonell. London: H. Brome, 1669.

Cacao Herbal Monograph

I’ve decided to be really cliché and do a Valentine’s kind of theme for my herbal post this week.  I will share this short monograph on Cacao that I wrote for Natural Herbal Living Magazine in February of 2015.  Because chocolate! ~ Stephany 

One of my fondest childhood memories is coming indoors on a cold winter day and waiting impatiently while Mom whipped up a batch of homemade hot cocoa. Our modern love affair with cocoa and chocolate go back to the days when the early Spanish and British explorers first brought it back from the New World. Although preparations and uses for the plant have changed over the centuries, the fact remains that cacao holds a special place in our culture. Few people stop to consider that what is now considered a confection was once widely used as a medicinal preparation.

 Scientific NameTheobroma cacao
Family: Malvaceae
Other Names: cacao tree, cocoa tree

Origin of Cacao
The cacao tree is native to the Amazon Basin, but its range spread north to Central America when more cultures began cultivating it. The cacao tree will only flourish in very specific climatic
conditions. It’s a tropical undergrowth plant, and it depends upon high temperatures and humidity only found near the Equator. The trees also require the presence of the Forcipomyia midge, which inhabit these ecosystems, for pollination.

Each of the roughly 12- inch (30 cm) pods growing from the trunk and main branches produce anywhere from 25 to 40 bitter-tasting seeds, or beans, which are surrounded by a white pulp. Cocoa powder and chocolate are both products that come from processing the cacao bean. The beans are processed into powder, cocoa butter, and chocolate; the pulp is harvested for other uses.

You can see how these would be hard to break.

The pods will not open without some sort of mechanical assistance from animals or humans. Spider monkeys,who use the pods as a food source, earned the reputation as the “bringers of cacao” due to their efficient dispersal of the seeds.[1]

The Science

There are a lot of claims about cacao’s superfood status, and even more traditional and modern
suggested uses. I’ve included below a brief summary of what has been investigated through scientific methods.

Cacao contains the xanthines theobromine and caffeine. It also contains the fatty acids stearic
acid and oleic acid. Recent scientific research into the phenol content of chocolate has identified thousands of various polyphenols in chocolate including the flavonoid quercetin and the flavonols epicatechin and catechin.[2]

The theobromine in cacao acts as a central nervous system stimulant, working on both the cardiac and respiratory systems. Theobromine is also a diuretic, a vasodilator, and a smooth- muscle relaxant.[3] Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and diuretic too. Unlike theobromine, it is a vasoconstrictor.[4]

It seems worth noting that these opposing actions of vasodilation and vasoconstriction could have a toning effect on the vasculature, although more research is needed to confirm this theory. The various phenolic compounds act as antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory actions, which contribute to cacao’s positive “metabolic, antihypertensive,anti-inflammatory, and anti- thrombotic effects.”[5]

In addition to these actions, chocolate has been termed a euphoric, as it has been theorized to impact serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain.[6]

Cacaos Many Uses
There is an incredibly rich history of ethnobotanical use that continues up to the present day. While today cacao is thought of as food, historically cacao has been considered ceremonial, medicinal, and nutritive.

History and Tradition
Cacao’s long history of both medicinal and ritual use began in Mesoamerica. The similarity between Aztec and Mayan use of the plant, point towards its use by a common ancestor.[7] According to both cultures, cacao was gifted to humans by the divine and was an integral part of religious rituals.







The most common preparation was a drink made from cacao powder or paste cakes mixed with water. Depending on the area, the drinks contained additional ingredients such as chili powder, vanilla, or ground maize. The drink was typically frothed by making it in a special cacao pot with a spout for blowing into it, or by quickly transferring the drink between two vessels.[8] Traditional cocoa powder preparations were considered to have antiseptic, diuretic, ecbolic (stimulating uterine contractions), emmenagogue, and parasiticidal actions.

Early Spanish explorers reported that indigenous peoples used cacao to treat angina, constipation, dental problems, dysentery, asthenia, gout, and many other diseases [9] including alopecia, burns, cough, dry lips, eyes, fever, diarrhea, listlessness, malaria, nephrosis, rheumatism, snakebite, and wounds.[10]

The use of cacao as a medicinal plant spread to Spain and Great Britain as these empires settled the Americas. In 1624, Spanish physician Santiago de Valverde Turices was the first to assign energetic qualities to both cacao powder and chocolate. He claimed that while the powder was cold, chocolate drinks were hot, dry, and suitable for cold, damp conditions.[11] Henry Stubbe was one of the first Europeans to write extensively on cacao. His text, titled The Indian Nectar; or A discourse concerning chocolate wherein the nature of the cacao-nut is examined…, was published in 1682. Axtextli, a beverage he mentioned as an aphrodisiac, was a mixture of cacao paste, maize, mecaxochitl (black pepper),and tlilxochitl (vanilla).

InThe English American published in 1648, Thomas Gage mentioned that black pepper mixed with cacao was a remedy for a “cold liver.”[12] King’s American Dispensatory recommends a mixture of cacao and milk as a restorative drink for “persons convalescing from acute diseases.” M. Grieves mentions in A Modern Herbal that in her time, cacao was given as a diuretic along with digitalis to relieve “accumulation of blood in the body resulting from cardiac failure” and as a remedy for hypertension due to the vasodilative action.

Modern Day
Although human studies of theobromine have confirmed its potential usefulness in inhibiting
coughs,[13] for the most part, the use of cacao as a medicinal has faded out of practice. It is,
however, still widely considered a dietary supplement with health- promoting qualities. There is a great deal of research available on the health benefits of adding cacao to our diets.

The phenolic compounds seem to protect against chronic diseases related to oxidative stress, one study concluding, “Several in vivo studies have provided strong support for the hypothesis that the consumption of flavanol-rich foods, such as certain cocoas and chocolates, may be associated with reduced risk for vascular disease.”[14] A study released last year has addressed the potential of cacao polyphenols in preventing “metabolic diseases and chronic inflammation associated with obesity.”[15]

Since “milk proteins inhibit absorption of flavonoids” dark chocolate may be the best way to
consume chocolate for the dietary benefits.15 Cacao may also have mental health benefits.

Ask many people, and they will tell you that they self-medicate on down days with chocolate. This practice seems to be supported by research on how eating chocolate impacts mood. Cocoa butter, which is another by-product of processing the beans, is used extensively in modern cosmetic preparations, due to its rich emollient properties, as well as in the chocolate-making process.

Using Cacao Safely
As with any food plant that is also a medicinal herb, there are some precautions to keep in mind
as you incorporate it into your daily regimen.

Side Effects
Cacao can cause allergic reactions in some people, although that is rare, and it may trigger migraines in some individuals.[16] Many of its side effects are related to the caffeine content.
As with all caffeinated beverages, moderation is key.

Contraindications and Drug Interactions
Avoid cacao if you have an allergy to any member of the Sterculiaceae family. People who suffer from kidney stones or gout may also want to avoid cacao as it increases urinary oxalate levels.[17]

There are a number of pharmaceutical drugs that interact with caffeine including clozapine, beta-adrenergic antagonists, lithium, and drugs used for testing for heart conditions. Be sure to discuss your caffeine intake with your physician before starting a new prescription. The flavanols in cacao may also interact with blood- thinning medications. (Sorry you all…gotta include the CYA disclaimers. The main thing here is to communicate with your providers about excessive consumption.  I am looking at you people who drink a pot a day!)

Use During Pregnancy and Lactation
Follow your physician’s recommendation regarding daily caffeine intake during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. In some studies, excessive caffeine in the maternal diet has resulted in colic in infants.[18]

 Dosage and Administration
There are no established dosages for cacao powder. Administration is generally in the form of a beverage or confection. Half of a 3-ounce chocolate bar contains 86 – 240 mg of theobromine and 9 – 31 mg of caffeine.[19]

[1] 1 Nisao Ogata, Arturo Gómez-Pompa, and Karl A. Taube, “The Domestication and Distribution of Theobroma cacao L. in the Neotropics,” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao ed. Cameron L. McNeil (University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2006), 87.

[2] 2 Chiaki Sanbongi, Naomi Osakabe, et al., “Antioxidative Polyphenols Isolated from Theobroma cacao,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 46, (1998).

[3] Lisa Ganora, Herbal Constituents, (Herbalchem Press, 2009), 155.

[4] Ibid.

[5] G. Lippi, M. Franchini, et al., “Dark chocolate: consumption for pleasure or therapy?” Journal of Thrombosis Thrombolysis 28, (2013).

[6] Gordon Parker, Isabella Parker, and Heather Brotchie, “Mood state effects of chocolate,” Journal of Affective Disorders 92 (2006).

[7] “Caroline Seawright. Life Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica,”(archaeological essay, 2012). Full text:, pp. 13.

[8] Hillary Christopher, “Cacao’s Relationship with MesoamericanSociety.” Spectrum 3, (2012).

[9] Donatella Lippi, “Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons?”Nutrition 25, (2009).

[10] 10 “Chocolate,” National Standard Food, Herbs and Supplements Database (2014).

[11] Lippi, “Dangerous liasons.”

[12] Gage, Thomas. The English American. London, England: Printed by A. Clark, and are to be sold by J. Martyn, Robert Horn and Walter Kettilby, (1677). pp. 241.

[13] OS Usmani, MG Belvisi, et al., “Theobromine inhibits sensory nerve activation and cough.” The Journal of the Federation of American Studies for Experimental Biology 19 (2005).

[14] Carl Keen, Roberta Holt, “Cocoa Antioxidants and cardiovascular health,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81, (2005).

[15] Faisal Ali, Amin Ismail, and Sander Kersten. “Molecular mechanisms underlying the potention antiobesity-related diseases effect of cocoa polyphenols Molecular Nutrition Food Research 00 (2013).

[16] Leira, R. and Rodriguez, R. [Diet and migraine]. Rev Neurol. 1996;24(129):534-538.

[17] Massey, L. K., Roman-Smith, H., and Sutton, R. A. Effect of dietary oxalate and calcium on urinary oxalate and risk of formation of calcium oxalate kidney stones. J Am.Diet.Assoc. 1993;93(8):901-906.

[18]Evans, R. W., Fergusson, D. M., Allardyce, R. A., and Taylor, B. Maternal diet and infantile colic in breast-fed infants. Lancet 6-20-1981;1(8234):1340-1342

[19] Mumford GK, Evans SM, Kaminski BJ, et al. Discriminative stimulus and subjective effects of theobromine and caffeine in humans. Psychopharmacology (Berl) . 1994;115(1-2):1-8.

Yellow Dock’s Versatile History

Yellow dock provides such interesting contrast in color and texture to a garden.

Yellow dock provides such interesting contrast in color and texture to a garden.

I don’t put a lot of my plant articles on my blog because they are usually long and heavily referenced, but  one of my publishers Amanda does allow us to  publish the articles we write for Natural Herbal Living Magazine on our own websites.  You should definitely check it out if you are interested in more great articles about Yellow Dock!  You can subscribe to upcoming issues of the magazine and order backcopies!  Today I am posting this article because I went out to pick some rue and took a picture of my yellow dock I wanted to share with readers. 

The herb yellow dock has a long and interesting history of use that might actually surprise some people who only use the root, but I first want to explain that when you start looking into this history, it can be a bit confusing. For example, Chin-ch’iao-mai is sometimes given as the Chinese name for yellow dock, but this name is also used to refer to Fagopyrum cymosum (golden buckwheat).1 This seems to be a regional difference with at least one source mentioning “at Peking this is Rumex crispus.”2 This confusion continues to occur in modern times. Here in Iowa, you frequently hear old-timers calling Rumex crispus “sour dock” despite Maud grieves’ assertion that sour dock was a name reserved for sorrel (Rumex acetosa).

Historically, the name dock seems to apply broadly to various member of the Rumex species including Rumex obtusifolius (broad dock) Rumex verticillatus (swamp dock) and Rumex crispus (yellow dock). For example, the Anglo Saxon manuscripts mention dock, but which species this refers to is unclear.3

The Greek Dioscorides didn’t specifically mention a curly-leafed dock in De Materia Medica, although his entry on “lapathum” mentions four different kinds of Rumex including one that resembles plantain.4 It seems likely that these docks were used somewhat interchangeably throughout history. In fact, William Cook writes in the Physio-Medical Dispensatory “the roots of these several species are of the same general characters, though that of the crispus is decidedly the most effective and least astringent.”5

If you are searching specifically for Rumex crispus in sources from the UK you will want to look for the common names of “curled dock,” “curly dock,” or “narrow-leaf dock.” In Irish, Rumex crispus is also copóg chatach which again means “curled dock,”6 and in Scotland, it is called simply docken or copag.7 One herbal historian mentions that children in northern England would draw dock stalks through their fingers to “milk” out the sap and call the plant “curly-cows,” leading one to believe they were speaking specifically of the curly leaves of yellow dock.

A Tonic Root
In On Regimen in Acute Disease, Hippocrates noted that people who have skipped lunch are unlikely to be able to digest their dinner and recommended that “Such persons should take less supper than they are wont, and a pudding of barley-meal more moist than usual instead of bread, and of potherbs the dock, or mallow.”8  This advice makes sense, given yellow dock’s actions in improving digestion which you can read more about in the article on Yellow Dock syrup on page 39.

Culpeper was a fan of all of the docks (he seemed partial to herbs ruled by Jupiter) but asserted that yellow dock was best for those whose “blood or liver was affected by choler,”9 meaning that it countered excess yellow bile due to its cooling properties. According to Greek medicine, yellow bile was a bodily substance that was hot and dry in nature and when present in excess resulted in hot conditions such as fever or irritability. Many modern herbalists take this to mean that yellow dock cools liver heat. He suggested boiling meat with any dock root to make it boil sooner and strengthen the liver but then complained that women wouldn’t add dock to food because it “makes the pottage black.”10

Culpeper was by no means the only herbalist to embrace the root as a liver tonic. Centuries later, the physiomedical physicians such as Cook and the eclectic physicians such as King, Scudder, and Fyfe, classified yellow dock as an alterative which was “especially valuable in cases in which there is evidence of bad blood.” 11 The root was also prescribed by eclectic physicians for a peculiar malady called “melancholia dependent on brain anemia.” This condition, asserted some, was brought on by excessive activity of the mind and excessive excretion of phosphorous resulting in “a diminution of the mental capacities.” 12

Specific Indications
In the days before antibiotics, the dried root was frequently included in formulas that were meant to address specific complaints-most likely because of the root’s perceived ability to cleanse the blood. By 1890, Park, Davis & Company in the US was producing and marketing many different preparations of the root including a fluid extract, a solid extract, and a rumicin concentrate. Yellow dock root was also an ingredient in two of their compound formulas—one being a syrup that contained a few other interesting herbs, including bittersweet nightshade and Virginia creeper:

Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) 60 grams
Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) 30 grams
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) 15 grams
Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) 15 grams
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) 60 grams

This formula and others like it were widely used to relieve symptoms of scrofula or skin diseases associated with syphilis. Yellow dock preparations were also mentioned as being specifically useful to those who had a hereditary predisposition to glandular swellings, referred to as strumous diathesis.13

More than Just Root Medicine
Yellow dock probably springs to most herbalists’ minds as a root remedy, however that is really selling this plant short. Dioscorides mentioned the seed of lapathum as being useful against dysentery and other gastrointestinal complaints.14 Culpeper agrees, saying the seeds “stay lasks and fluxes of all sorts,” and “is helpful for those that spit blood.” 15 Maud Grieves confirms the seeds are useful against dysentery.16 Given the prolific number of seeds this plant produces, modern herbalists should investigate these uses. Just keep in mind that the seeds are useful due to astringency, so don’t overdo it.

Another very interesting use of the seeds mentioned in the Anglo Saxon manuscript The Lacnunga is mixing dock seeds and Irish wax and, after a short ritual, placing it on the wounds of a horse that has been elf-shot. This term was used to explain many different illnesses that set on suddenly in both Anglo Saxon and Norse lore.17 In this particular case the term likely refers to a horse suddenly going lame for some reason.

Bald’s Leechbook also mentions dock as being a remedy for water-elf sickness a term that was used during medieval times to refer various illnesses that were accompanied by skin eruptions chicken pox, measles and possibly St. Anthony’s fire, the vernacular name for ergotism.18 The following elf-charm was to be recited after applying the remedy:

“I have wreathed round the wounds the best of healing wreaths, so the baneful sores may neither burn nor burst, nor find their way further, nor turn foul and fallow, nor thump and throb on, nor be wicked wounds, nor dig deeply down; but he himself may hold in a way to health . Let it ache thee o more than ear in earth acheth.
Sing also this many times, “May earth bear on you with all her might and main.” These galdor a man may sing over a wound.19

More frequently though, the Anglo Saxon manuscripts mentioned dock leaves for addressing swellings such as boils or as a remedy for burns and nettle stings.20 This practice carried on in the UK.

The leaves were commonly used as poultices or plasters for various conditions in the early 1900’s. Gabrielle Hatfield’s ethnographic survey of East Anglia revealed that people in that area used the leaf frequently. One respondent sharing “Another remedy I remember was the cure for all bumps, cuts and bruises, was the dock leaf, these too were applied to the wound like plasters, and stopped the bleeding and brought down the bump.” 21  In Ireland, the juice of the leaves would be squeezed onto a cloth and used as compress for bruises.22

Healing Ointments
The plant also has a long history of being included as an ingredient in healing salves. English sources report “the poultice made from narrow-leaved dock ‘has been known to cure a growth on a man’s hand.” 23 Scottish healers also made a healing ointment by boiling the root until it was soft and mixing it with fresh butter.24 Grieves recommends boiling the root in vinegar and then mixing the pulp in lard. The leaves are also useful in salves, herbalist Ryan Drum still includes yellow dock leaves in the recipe for Dr. Drum’s All-Purpose Healing Salve.25

Dock in Nettles Out
Many healing charms in the UK involve taking a bit of dock and rubbing it on nettle stings to relieve the pain. This is an ancient practice first mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Leechbook. In Cornwall, a common healing charm “Dock leaf, dock leaf, you go in; sting nettle, sting nettle, you come out,”26 while in other areas of England, you might hear: “Out nettle in dock; Dock shall have a new smock.”27 One old-timer explained to a researcher that most people didn’t do this right, saying: “The real cure was where a new leaf was growing down at the ground, there was a drop of liquid in it, and this liquid rubbed on the sting cured it.”28 I have to admit that I had used dock somewhat unsuccessfully on nettle stings until trying this trick and I find that it does seem more effective.

Dock in Folklore
In many Irish folktales, you see the phrase bán ag dul ar scáth na copóige, referring to a bright moonlit night. It is a shortened version of a longer Irish saying which translates to, “the moon seeking the shade of the dock and the dock receding from it.”29 Dock also figures prominently in Scottish tales, which credit the plant with being able to break a fairy’s hold over a child. Possession by fairies was a frequent theme in Gaelic lore.
The stories sometimes passed along practical knowledge as well. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Happy Family” talks of the dock forest planted by the people who lived in the manor house as a home for the snails,30 which probably speaks to a once common practice of using docks as shelter plants in heliciculture, the farming of edible terrestrial snails.

1 Shiu-ying Hu, Food Plants of China, Chinese University Press (2005) p 370.
 2 Shizhen Li, Porter Smith, and George Arthur Stuart, Chinese Medicinal Herbs: A Modern Edition of a Classic Sixteenth-Century Manual. Dover Publications (2003) p 385.
 3 Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing Anglo-Saxon Books (2008).
 4 Dioscorides, Translated by Tess Anne Osbaldeston, De Materia Medica. - Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation, IBIDIS Press (60AD) p 263.
 5 William Cook, The Physio-Medical Dispensatory: A Treatise on Therapeutics, Materia Medica, and Pharmacy, in Accordance with the Principles of Physiological Medication, Wm. H. Cook (1869) p 457.
 6 Niall Mac Coiter, Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore, The Collins Press (2008).
 7 Mary Beith, Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands, Birlinn (2004) p 214.
 8 Hippocrates, Translated by Francis Adams, “On Regimen in Acute Diseases,” 400BCE.
 9 Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician [1981 Reprint], J. Gleave and Son, Deansgate (1826).
 10 Ibid.
 11 John William Fyfe, John Milton Scudder, Specific Diagnosis and Specific Medication, 2nd ed., John K. Scudder (1909) p 699.
 12 Waldo Forbush, “Rumex crispus,” Journal of Therapeutics and Dietetics II. (1908) p 169.
 13 George S. Davis, Organic Materia Medica: Including the Standard Remedies of the Leading Pharmacopoeas as Well as Those Articles of the Newer Materia Medica ... and of the Preparations Made Therefrom, 2nd ed., Park, Davis & Company (1890).
 14 Dioscorides, Translated by Tess Anne Osbaldeston, De Materia Medica. - Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation, IBIDIS Press (60AD).
 15 Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician [1981 Reprint], J. Gleave and Son, Deansgate (1826) p 64.
 16 Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs, & Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses Vol. 1., Dover (1971).
 17 Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, Boydell Press (2007).
 18 Audrey Meaney, “Extra-Medical Elements in Anglo-Saxon Medicine,” Social History of Medicine 24(1) (2011) 41–56.
 19 Thomas Oswald Cockayne, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England : Being a Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in This Country before the Norman Conquest Vol. 2 Longman (1864) pp 353-354.
 20 Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing Anglo-Saxon Books (2008).
 21 Gabrielle Hatfield, Memory, Wisdom and Healing: The History of Domestic Plant Medicine (Kindle Locations 1974-1976), The History Press (2012), Kindle Edition.
 22 David Elliston Allen, Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland, Timber Press (2004) p 97.
 23 Mark R. Taylor, Taylor MSS (1920), Norfolk Records Office, Norwich, England 4322.
 24 Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, “18th Century Book of Herbal Remedies: Complete Transcription,” (trans. 2012) Accessed April 10.
 25 Ryan Drum, “How to Prepare Dr. Drum’s All-Purpose Herbal Salve,” Island Herbs (2010).
 26 Niall Mac Coiter, Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore, The Collins Press (2008).
 27 William Black, Folk-Medicine: A Chapter in the History of Culture, Elliot Stock, (1883) p 194.
 28 Roy Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-Lore, Oxford University Press (1995).
 29 Niall Mac Coiter, Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends and Folklore, The Collins Press (2008).
 30 Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales from Hans Andersen, Oxford University Press (1999).

Herbal Self-Care Basics: Circulation

Most of us are familiar with the heart’s role in pumping blood throughout the body, but do we really think about why circulation is important?   Do we think about what it actually means to have poor circulation to our hands and feet? Or reduced blood flow to the brain?

In my experience clients will tell me that they have these issues but don’t understand how it impacts their daily well-being.  In its typical reductionist fashion modern medicine has reduced our concerns about circulation to the danger of heart disease and that is problematic.

Circulating blood carries elements, such as oxygen and nutrients, which are vital to rebuilding tissue and promoting effective cellular function. Your nervous system function and metabolic function are directly impacted by how well your circulatory system delivers these elements.

Ions carried in your blood, such as potassium, sodium and other electrolytes, power the nervous system. Neurons don’t fire if these ions don’t get to them. If neurons don’t fire, neurotransmitters don’t orchestrate the release or suppression of hormones.

mitochondriaThe mitochondria use glucose from the blood to produce ATP, which fuels all cellular metabolic processes.  If your cells don’t get enough glucose, the mitochondria fail to work properly.  Mitochondrial malfunction has been implicated in many diseases including Alzheimer’s,  dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington Disease, ALS, diabetes, obesity and many more.

The following video shows how the mitochondria turn food into ATP. I don’t think that it as important to understand what is going on in the process as it is to just enjoy how beautiful this is.

The blood also carries the components necessary for building new cells and tissue throughout the body. Strengthening the body tissues helps your body more effectively fight off pathogens.  Healthy circulation also means that white blood cells can get to an area of infection more efficiently.

Given all of this,  I am often confused it seems that the benefits of healthy circulation has been reduced to the concept of reducing strain on the heart muscle and a bunch of nonsense about cholesterol.

Food and Circulatory Health

For information on the fat debate read  this article by Dr. Dwight Lundell, the past Chief of Staff and Chief of Surgery at Banner Heart Hospital , Mesa , AZ and this journal article by Anthony Colpo.

I have personal inclinations about fats.  Avoiding Omega 6 fats is really important.  Getting a lot of Omega 3 fats is equally important.   I think how much saturated fat you eat depends entirely on your constitution and I don’t make broad suggestions about that.

I tend to believe that if you have high LDL cholesterol, there is a health benefit in attempting to lower it, through diet and exercise; especially if you have known markers of arterial inflammation.  The problem to my way of thinking is that LDL is likely to oxidize in the body and become a free radical itself, which will only serve to worsen that condition.

I don’t get into diet dogma,  I don’t care if you eat carbs, or not.  There are grains such as oatmeal, barley, which naturally seem to lower LDL cholesterol levels. Flavonoids, in particular, protect LDL from oxidation.

I tend to believe that what you add to your diet is far more important that what you avoid.  We should all be getting 8-10 servivings of fruits and vegetables a day.  Eating a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables assures us variety of anti-oxidants which in turn helps to minimize oxidative stress in the body and may slow the progression of atherosclerosis.

Traditional research maintains that sodium can lead to fluid retention in the body and therefore it raises blood pressure.  Recent research questions that association.[1]  I have to admit I’ve always been skeptical because  I like salt the way other people like sugar and my blood pressure was 98/59, the last time I had it taken.   I think that salt intake is another issue to be assessed on an individual basis.

Potassium helps the body to rid itself of excess sodium and helps to power the nervous system, so eating foods high in potassium certainly can’t hurt you.

The Mayo Clinic also indicates that low vitamin D levels may have some effect on kidney enzymes which regulate blood pressure.

Herbs and Circulatory Health

Plants contribute nutrients and other beneficial phytochemicals to the daily diet. Herbs and spices containing high amounts of antioxidants include rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, garlic, ginger, turmeric and cayenne.  Cacao, while not an herb, is also known to improve cardiovascular health.

Herbs benefit the circulatory system for various reasons.  Some are diffuse (peripheral) circulatory stimulants; promoting circulation to the extremities.  Some work as vasodilators; which means they distend the arteries to allow for more blood flow.   Others tonify and strengthen the vasculature; improving endothelial function.  There are also herbs, which help to reduce excess cholesterol in the blood.

I will mention some below that you might include in a daily regimen that supports circulatory health.   I like to mention many herbs that are easily incorporated into the diet, as well as those you might enjoy as a beverage.  I am not getting into clinical treatments.

Gingko Biloba is probably the most widely agreed upon circulatory stimulant.  It is especially known for promoting circulation to the brain. Rosemary also has this reputation. Either pair well with Gotu Kola, which has a strengthening effect on the blood vessels.  This is partly due to the fact that Gotu Kola promotes collagen production.[2]

Hawthorn berries are another popular circulatory tonic due to Hawthorn’s actions as a peripheral vasodilator and its ability to decrease serum levels of LDL-cholesterol.[3]  I like to make a hawthorn berry/cacao chai with lots of corrigents.

Herbalist David Hoffman mentions Linden flowers (Tilea spp.) as a specific herb for arteriosclerosis with hypertension.  Linden is a diffuse circulatory stimulant, which promotes circulation to the periphery and it tonifies blood vessels. Linden makes a lovely light infusion and honestly I enjoy it most on its own.

Cayenne, yarrow and rosemary are also diffuse circulatory stimulants. They are frequently useful for people who experience numbness, or cold hands and feet.  I have found English mustard foot baths to work well for this, as well.

Guggal is a traditional Ayurvedic herbal preparation, which has been studied extensively and found to be effective in lowering triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.[4]   Cayenne, garlic, mustard and turmeric also have this effect.  And they taste a lot better.

Incorporating any of these herbs in a daily regimen which involves good nutrition,  self-care, exercise and plenty of sleep will help to assure that your cells get the nutrition they need.


1.  Helene Lelong, Pilar Galan, Emmanuelle Kesse-Guyot, Leopold Fezeu,Serge Hercberg, and Jacques Blacher
Relationship Between Nutrition and Blood Pressure: A Cross-Sectional Analysis from the NutriNet-Santé Study, a French Web-based Cohort Study Am J Hypertens first published online September 3, 2014.